Erick Castro has mixed hundreds of thousands of cocktails throughout his nearly 20-year bartending career. He hasn’t committed all of them to memory, of course, but there are a few calls—holdovers from a darker, stranger era of drinking—that have taken up permanent residence in his head.
“Composed shots, back when I first started bartending, weren’t designed to be good. They were more like a prank,” says the proprietor of San Diego’s Polite Provisions and New York’s Boilermaker. “I still remember the first one I learned: the Gorilla Fart—151 [rum] and bourbon.” There was also the Scooby Snack, a fruity shooter of Malibu, Midori, pineapple juice and heavy cream. Even more deranged was the Minefield: three shots each of well vodka and water, shuffled around, then slugged one by one à la Russian Roulette. “No one was happy about them,” Castro recalls.
Bartenders today are far demurer when playing in this sandbox, relying on amari, top-shelf spirits and sometimes even the complexity of full-size cocktails to deliver custom one-ounce tastes for their guests. But while spontaneous shot-taking might seem like a distant memory as barrooms largely remain closed to the public, there’s never been a better time to invent your own signature house shot, from the quarantined confines of your own actual house.
Nowadays, the most common built-shot format is the “50/50,” which is exactly what it sounds like—two distinct components commingled in equal measure. Italian amari is largely, though not exclusively, conscripted into duty here; the Hard Start (Fernet Branca + Branca Menta) and Ferrari (Fernet Branca + Campari) are just two of the innumerable 50/50s that have grown popular enough to earn their own moniker.
Shots have always served as a love language among the drink-making ranks. “That’s been part of bartending for as long as bartending’s been around,” says Joaquín Simó, whose Manhattan bar, Pouring Ribbons, has been shuttered since March. Sending a fellow traveler a modern “handshake” can serve myriad functions—a wordless hello or goodbye, a sincere thank you, or an indication that the staff appreciates their patience on a busy night. Their functionality extends to civilian guests, too. When Pouring Ribbons is in operation, Simó and Co. often offer departing drinkers an ounce of Cynar, with a whisper of aquavit for flavor—a low-octane “parting shot” with their equilibrium in mind. “Giving someone three fingers of Rittenhouse is not a gesture of hospitality,” he says. “It’s an act of aggression.”
At a gentle 16.5 percent ABV, Cynar is an effective foil for significantly stronger spirits in 50/50 builds. Jesse Cornell, a bartender at Suraya in Philadelphia, likes the amaro married with bonded Laird’s Apple Brandy, whose proprietary proof is tempered by the combination. “Cynar is thicker and round, while Laird’s is thin and sharp,” he says. “By combining the two, you’re bringing hot down to smooth.”
In his first few years running Polite Provisions, which opened in 2013, Castro witnessed equal parts bourbon and Cynar—aka “Bronar”—explode in popularity across San Diego. While he doesn’t accept credit for its invention (it supposedly migrated to SoCal from the Midwest), he embraced the craze, even pouring the mixture on draft at one point. “You can take them pretty often and not have to worry about getting put on your ass,” Castro says of the shot, which begat cousins like Ryenar and Rumnar. “A shot is meant to pick you up, not put you down. It’s never supposed to be anything you dread.”
To this end, the amaro category as a whole is an invaluable resource for the built shot. Amari do well with agave, as seen in the Maserati (mezcal and Ramazzotti) and M&M (mezcal and Montenegro), but assertive spirits of all stripes meet their match somewhere on this shelf. At Bluebird Cocktail Room in Baltimore, Tammy Bouma tames the unapologetic bite of 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye with mellow, viscous Averna. Bartender Gina Hoover of Cure in New Orleans is fond of pairing bready, savory Svöl Aquavit with the laid-back, wine-based Cardamaro.
Aside from the 50/50, many bartenders lean on a complementary method of cranking out composed shots—simply mixing up one regularly portioned cocktail, then pouring it evenly between shot glasses for a group. At Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, Kevin Beary pre-batches Beachcomber-style Zombies, emboldened with Jamaican overproof rum, to serve in shot size. It’s a welcome reminder that we, too, can keep composed shots in the fridge or freezer for whenever the mood strikes. (The freeze-ahead method works best with spirit-forward recipes like Martinis, Negronis and Manhattans, which can be doled out at will in shot-size pours.)
Crafting 50/50s with bar-geeky amari or divvying up Zombies might give the impression that the composed shot is an exclusively heady pursuit. But rest assured that there is still plenty of room for fun within the discipline—something just about everyone could use more of right now. David Yee, of All Due Respect in Columbus, heartily endorses a split of two-thirds Hennessy, one-third Jeppson’s Malört, the brutally bitter pour native to Chicago. And Simó, for his part, will always have a soft spot for the Chocolate Cake, a 50/50 mixture consisting of Frangelico and vanilla vodka, chased by chomping into a sugar-crusted lemon. “I’d call it the perfect guilty pleasure shot,” he says, “but I have rarely felt even a twinge of guilt for downing one.”